Zakary Aaron Osiris DeGross, a Boys' Latin School student who excelled in both the classroom and on the athletic field, died June 18 at Johns Hopkins Hospital after a nearly 1 1/2-year struggle against cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was 14.
"He was most notably characterized by his broad smile and wide eyes, and his optimism and cheerfulness that abounded in the face of a most difficult medical challenge," said Christopher J. Post, headmaster of the North Baltimore boys private school.
"I've known lots of kids over the years, and Zak sought nothing but unconditional love from those around him. He had an enormous capacity for thoughtfulness and generosity," Mr. Post said. "He was pretty exemplary."
Zak was born in Baltimore and raised in the city's Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood.
He spent his first five school years as a student at Mount Zion Baptist Christian School, where he received special recognition for testing beyond the 12th-grade level in reading.
He transferred to Boys' Latin in the sixth grade.
"He excelled in Latin and math and played flag football, basketball and lacrosse," said his mother, Lesli J. DeGross.
In March 2009, Zak was diagnosed with Stage 3 renal medullary carcinoma, a rare type of kidney cancer that is linked to sickle cell trait, his mother said.
Zak then submitted to a grueling schedule of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
"He never complained. He'd get down sometimes, but not complain," his mother said. "After a treatment, he'd be sick for a week and then he'd go back to school. He was determined to go back and make up the work he had missed."
Zak had set a goal for himself, his mother said.
"He loved school and wanted to remain a part of the student body. He was also determined that he'd walk across the stage at his eighth-grade graduation," Ms. DeGross said. "And he did, and he got a standing ovation."
Inspired by their friend's valiant struggle against cancer, his classmates designed and wore "Strength and Courage" bracelets to let him know they were standing alongside him and sharing his experience.
The school faculty organized a dodgeball tournament as a fundraiser for Zak.
Last summer, Alan Locey who was Zak's math teacher, adviser and coach at Boys' Latin, treated him and his family to a week at Keuka Lake in upstate New York's Finger Lakes region.
Mr. Locey said Zak learned to water ski, parasail and swim, and took in the natural beauty of the lake.
"He was determined to get up and ski, and when he fell, I had to yell for him to let go of the rope," recalled Mr. Locey.
Zak was a movie buff and collected movies ranging from classic Hollywood films to the latest sci-fi or thriller. He planned to one day work in film production and as an editor.
"He liked all kinds of movies and could analyze them," his mother said.
Last October, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Zak traveled to Los Angeles, where he visited the set and met the cast and production crew of "Suite Life on Deck," a favorite TV show.
In March, after more than 50 chemotherapy treatments and 10 weeks of radiation, Zak's family was told that he had not responded as hoped and his condition was terminal.
"Zak came from a wonderfully supportive family, and he had a wonderful compassionate relationship with his mom who was there at his bedside until the end," Mr. Locey said. "He was a fighter in academics and sports. He tried to hold on and fought his cancer to the end."
Zak spent the final weeks of his life in the pediatric oncology center at Hopkins.
One of Zak's final wishes was to go to the movies and see the debut of the remake of "The Karate Kid," which was being released June 11. But because of his illness, he could not leave the hospital. One of his doctors had a contact at Sony Pictures in Hollywood. Some 18 hours later, a representative from Sony's East Coast office was aboard a train bound for Baltimore carrying a copy of the film to be shown in Zak's hospital room.
Family, friends and schoolmates jammed the hospital room.
"They brought in a large-screen TV. The hospital provided nachos and cheese, soda and popcorn, just like the real movies," Ms. DeGross said.
The Rev. Stanley Fuller, formerly pastor of Grace Baptist Church, where Zak was a member, was also a friend.
"The thing that stands out about Zak was that he was a respectful kid — he could be mischievous and do all those things kids do — but he was wonderful. He had balance," said Mr. Fuller, who is executive minister at Mount Calvary African Methodist Episcopal Church in Towson.
"He always had deep thoughts that he'd share with me. He loved school, and he loved church. He was a sheer pleasure to be around," he said.
"I watched Zakary as he got sick, and he never complained because he didn't want to worry his mom. He wanted to make sure that she was OK," Mr. Fuller said. "He had the poise and dignity of a person well beyond his years. He had a special grace, and I thank God for that."
Mr. Fuller said he wanted to remember Zak's smile, his love of education and sports, and his enthusiasm and courage.
"Those moments will never die," he said.
Mr. Post, who spoke at Zak's funeral Saturday at Action Ministries at Lutheran Church of the Holy Comforter, said Monday that he "will live on in each of us because of the way he lived his life."
Also surviving are his father, Troy Lee Sr.; a brother, Troy Lee Jr.; a sister, Adonekka Lee; his paternal grandmother, Sharon Barnes-Thomas; his maternal grandparents, Steven and Geraldine DeGross Sr.; and aunts, uncles and cousins. All live in Baltimore.